Both the blessing and the curse for Glee when it comes to the fact that its storytelling can be… incoherent is the fact that it’s about a buncha teenagers. Teenagers are, by their very natures, fairly incoherent, their emotions shooting off all over the place like faulty fireworks. Most teenagers have something solid somewhere at their core, but they’re also trying on new personas as often as possible trying to figure out the exact right mixture of elements that will make them “them.” In terms of Glee, this means that the show can throw together a storyline over the course of several seasons that doesn’t make a lot of logical sense, then attempt to pull it all together under the umbrella of the idea that teenagers are moody and mercurial by their very emotional and hormonal makeup. It’s sort of what Glee tries to do in “I Am Unicorn,” an episode that seems designed to start dealing with some of the emotional fallout of the season one finale.
“But, Todd!” you say. “We’re in season three of Glee now!” And, yes, you’re correct. Honestly, I can’t decide if an episode like this might have worked better if it really was the second episode of season two or if it works better because there was a big, messy season separating it from all that came before. There’s an argument to be made that the show would have been better off dealing with these messy emotions right away, rather than foisting on us a whole season where, say, Quinn ping-ponged between a bunch of different interpretations of the character, but there’s also a solid argument that by increasing the seeming incoherence of Quinn’s character, the emotional payoff here is all the more moving. She’s been grieving giving up her child all this time and she didn’t even know it. It’s a fairly powerful storyline, and it also seems entirely invented to let the writers off the hook for having basically no idea what to do with several members of the supporting cast last season.
At the same time, Quinn gets dragged into the storyline that destroys all it touches: Sue’s ridiculous run for Congress, a plot that doesn’t make one bit of logical sense. Sue raging about cutting arts funding because it’s impacting the bottom line? Fine. That’s the sort of thing that mostly makes sense as becoming a political hot button issue. It’s the kind of minor cut to the budget that candidates will propose from time to time: If we just cut this bit of funding, the budget will all but balance itself. But Sue’s growing popularity from, uh, arguing that the arts ruin people’s lives? I’m not sure how that makes any sense, and it continues the rather nonsensical notion that if Sue just runs her political campaign like she runs her mission to shut down glee club, she’ll become even more popular. When people get up in arms about government-funded art, they’re getting up in arms about stuff like Piss Christ or what have you. They’re not getting up in arms about high school glee clubs, and it’s hard to see this storyline as anything other than, “Shit, we still have Jane Lynch on the payroll. What should we do?”
Other than the Sue plotline, however, this was a marked improvement over the season premiere. It was still incredibly busy, but most of that busy-ness had a point, and I liked the way that the show gave nearly all of the storylines an emotional core and shunted Will off to a random subplot where he spent all of his time slow-motion dancing with Mike Chang (as one does). No, the main focuses here were Quinn, Kurt, and Rachel, with a hefty side order of Puck. And it was also as if someone had gone back to watch the season one DVDs and realized there were a bunch of promising plotlines that were just abandoned. Artie, for instance, went back to wanting to be a director, ending up assistant directing the school musical with Beiste (who was in a musical once) and Emma (who needs something to do). It was as if someone somewhere along the way said, “We used to care about all of these characters, not just some of them. Let’s go back to that again.”
The Kurt storyline was probably the most consistent, even if the show seemed to momentarily forget about it. In true Glee fashion, there’s a student body government election we haven’t really paid much attention to before coming up, and Brittany has decided Kurt should run because he’s the true unicorn of the school. (Brittany’s story of how unicorns come to be, incidentally, is quite funny.) The posters she makes are pink and covered in rainbows and unicorns and other sorts of icons that seem to highlight Kurt’s homosexuality more than anything else. Combined with the fact that his audition for West Side Story doesn’t convince anyone he’ll make a convincing romantic lead, Kurt’s feeling pretty down about the fact that he’s only seen as one thing: gay.
In one way, this is a pretty smart method of dealing with the inevitable fact that pretty much all of these characters are frequently reduced to a two-word archetype, at best. (And none is reduced more often or more disappointingly than Mercedes, as her one line of “Hell to the no” early in the episode reminds us.) Kurt is tired of being seen as “gay.” He’s more things than just that. He’s dreams and ambitions and hopes and interests other than his sexual preference. And while all of this is true, high school is a place that does have a tendency to reduce you to one or two personality traits and say that’s who you are. Kurt may want to be seen as a multi-faceted human being, but as a high school student (and an influential character on a popular television show), he’s inevitably going to be reduced to that one word, over and over.
And it doesn’t help that he just doesn’t make a believable romantic lead when he tries to play Romeo to Rachel’s Juliet. (To be fair, she’s not the world’s best Juliet, either.) Blaine—who seems to have simultaneously gotten younger and had a complete personality transplant over the summer—is the kind of guy you want in the lead role of your high school musical, the kind of guy who exudes both sexuality and charisma, the kind of guy who could play a believable love interest for either gender. Kurt is trapped playing more effeminate types, simply because of who he is. In a season that’s about how Kurt and Rachel come to realize that they’re not the bright, shining diamonds they imagine themselves to be, this is another reminder that Kurt’s probably going to have to forge his own way (as his dad tells him), rather than rely on landing in just the right parts. (It’d be interesting to contrast this journey with that of Chris Colfer, whose Glee audition caused the show’s writers to come up with the part just for him. We’ll see how this plays out over the season.)
This brings us to Quinn, whose storyline seems entirely designed to apologize to Dianna Agron for giving her shit-all to do in season two. Quinn’s story shifts over the course of the series have been, perhaps, the least-motivated, but the series was helped by two things. Again, it could just say that she was just being a teenager, but it could also point to Agron’s nicely consistent performance, a performance that underlined all of the flaws in the storytelling but also made them seem like they belonged to the same character. The writers often lost track of Quinn over the course of the first two years, but Agron was game for whatever was tossed at her. This makes this current storyline—wherein Shelby Corcoran comes back into her life, complete with Beth—all the more satisfying. By arguing that Quinn has been sad about giving up her baby all this time, the show is pretty blatantly retconning some of its less successful storylines from the first two seasons, but it’s doing so in a way that makes enough sense to give it the benefit of the doubt. The scene where Will read Quinn the riot act about how she had never been thankful to the glee club for taking her in almost felt like the show being mad at itself for constantly hitting the character reset button.
The return of Shelby was another thing that clanged here. Sugar’s father has paid the school to start up a rival glee club within the halls of McKinley, so his daughter can be a part of it? What? I know that the show is constantly worried about introducing conflict for the kids of the glee club, but this, in particular, felt very clumsy. Now, this could be the sort of thing the show forgets about in a week, but it really does feel like it’s being set up as a major conflict for all of these people to deal with. (Once again, notice that it’s the adult plotlines that don’t make a damn bit of sense.) On the other hand, it was nice to have Shelby around because it brought Beth back into the storyline, and it returned to the idea that Rachel still has some unresolved issues stemming from her adoption. (All of this returns the usual disclaimer that I’m uniquely susceptible to plots involving adoption, so tread with caution.)
I liked Shelby photobombing Rachel’s audition. (I wanted Beiste to stand up and say, “All right, ladies. You can both play Maria.) I mostly liked it because it reminded us that not everything is as wrapped up in this storyline as the first season might have wanted us to think. Idina Menzel is good at playing this character, and her work with Lea Michele has always been good. Fortunately, this tiny scene ended up being no exception to this rule, and it’s always nice to hear the two singing together. (Also, notice how this was basically a West Side Story theme episode, but the episode never really commented on this fact explicitly? The series just might be learning!) In general, I liked everything about Shelby’s storyline here but for the way that the show contrived to bring her back, which is bad, bad, bad. Here’s hoping that the show follows the more emotional beats of Shelby’s scenes with Quinn, Puck, and Rachel and doesn’t bother too heavily to make sense out of the idea that McKinley now has two glee clubs for some reason.
I’m a bit gunshy about praising this episode too heavily—especially since the Sue storyline continues to eat up valuable screentime for something that’s self-evidently ridiculous—but this struck me as the show settling down a bit after last week’s too-busy premiere and just starting to tell some interesting stories about these characters and these people. Not everything worked, but I don’t need everything to work on Glee when the emotional storylines are cooking along, as they mostly were here. The show didn’t force the glee club framing structure—the idea of everybody moving in harmony and feeding off of each other’s energy was one that mostly moved to the subtext, and we were treated to blessedly few scenes of Will and Mike showing off their slow-motion dance moves in the world’s longest boot camp—and it came up with some cool ideas to pursue going forward, like Brittany running for student body president against Kurt.
All of which circles back around to the big question facing this season: How much do you trust Glee? It used to be able to tell mostly coherent storylines, storylines that meandered and got distracted, yes, but also had genuinely interesting payoffs. It’s lost that ability of late, but season three is asking us to settle in and trust it just a while longer, so it can show us some cool tricks it’s picked up over the summer. So far, the premiere left me wanting to run away, but this episode left me thinking there might be some life in the old show yet. I’m willing to see where this goes, but my faith remains low.
- Straight guys, talkin’ ‘bout Glee: Look, Dianna Agron? Yes. Very attractive young woman. But c’mon, you guys? How can you look at Heather Morris’ smile at the end there and not agree with me about the true champion of this show? Also, she wore a unicorn horn? And called herself a bicorn? C’mon! (Though, sadly, she was not allowed to dance.)
- Just talk about the songs, VanDerWerff, God: By far the best performance was the one by Blaine to close out the episode. I also liked the Rachel/Shelby duet. I wasn't as fond of Kurt's Streisand number, but that was more because it relied on gimmicky staging, and I find that sort of thing frequently irritating.
- The scene where Puck held his daughter was very sweet and gave me hope that the show will come up with something for him to do after mostly relegating him to weird comic relief last season.
- This week, Finn did some stuff. He fell over while dancing. He worked in Burt’s mechanic’s shop and made out with Rachel while doing so. He furrowed his brow a lot. Is there some sort of phantom universe version of this show where there are lots of Finn plotlines that we’re not getting? The part where he nailed the dance steps felt like the culmination of a much more important storyline than the one we actually saw.
- Sugar continues to be one of my least favorite new characters in ages. That said, I hope that the girl who was on Huge keeps hanging out with Quinn, even though our girl’s back on the straight and narrow. I’m all about Huge alumni getting more work.
- Keep pointing out to me when the Glee Project kids pop up here and there. I did my best to avoid that show, needing a Glee break over the summer.
- Burt continues to be one of the best things about the show, even though he’s essentially been reduced to the role of Wilson in Home Improvement. Soon, he’ll start hiding behind things, and the transformation will be complete.
- I get that Kurt was worried about being perceived as gay in his campaign posters (and he agreed to run for that office awfully quickly), but it’s not like his homage posters were any better in that regard. Probably best to just let go and go with how everybody sees him already, remind them of the Kurt everybody likes.
- Sue’s shtick has gotten incredibly tiresome, but I did grin when she compared Emma to a marmoset.
- Much as I like Agron as an actress, I do not find her terribly believable as the kind of girl who would threaten other students.
- I'll admit it. I kind of hoped that Beiste, Emma, and Artie would cast everybody in the cast in every role in West Side Story and turn the musical into an incoherent mess that, nonetheless, preached a superficial message of acceptance. Not that it would have borne any relationship to the show itself or anything.
- "Wipe away!"
- "I've realized that after smoking all day, it hurts to stand."
- "Turns out Napoleon? Not just a dessert. He was a real dude."
- "You dress like you own a magic chocolate factory."